Every month the Planning Portal (the online system through which all planning and building control applications are managed) sends out a newsletter covering new developments within the construction industry and any changes related to application processes and costs. It also covers news stories and opinion pieces, and as with any thing that involves someone’s opinion, sometimes you read it and go “huh”.
Sometimes it’s a good “huh” that means you’ve learned something new; sometimes it’s the kind of “huh” that is a precursor to you spending several minutes wondering how exactly someone thought that was a good idea. Anyone that has spent time on Twitter will be familiar with the second type of “huh”.
In the January newsletter there was an article piece describing how the Local Government Association (the LGA) was arguing that permitted development rights should be scrapped (link).
For context, the LGA is a membership organisation intended to represent the interests of local councils across England and Wales on a national governmental level.
Permitted development rights allow building owners to make certain changes and developments without going through the full planning application process. For homeowners this allows them to add small extensions or thing such as solar panels to their home without applying for planning permission (though building regulations are usually required).
The article from the Planning Portal does not explicitly discuss homeowners, although the absence of such a mention is important as I will cover below.
The article argues, correctly in my opinion, that there has been a certain amount of abuse of these permitted development rights by development companies. In particular in converting unused urban office spaces into apartments leading to a dramatic decrease in available office space and in some cases the formation of poor quality living accommodation that does not meet advised standards.
Similarly, the LGA makes the argument that the development of existing structures is being used to bypass affordable housing requirements by these same development companies. Although I cannot comment on the latter point, the development of poor quality accommodation benefits no one in the long term.
I think the intent of the article, and possibly also the statement by the LGA, was intended to say that permitted development rights should be scrapped solely for conversions such as these, but that is not communicated clearly. In fact, on a first read through, the impression I received from the article could be summed up by the first paragraph, which I quote in its entirety below.
“Permitted development rights rules are “detrimental” to local communities and should be scrapped, the Local Government Association (LGA) has said.”
As a statement taken individually, and without further clarification currently available, this is more than a little concerning. With the recent increase in Planning Fees, the removal of permitted development rights across the board would make small extensions increasingly expensive for homeowners. When considering the effect of the actions of large companies, seemingly no consideration has been given to the effect of such a statement on individuals.
An across-the-board scrappage of permitted development rights just to limit conversions of office space to dwellings is overkill. In fact, because I promised to shoehorn the cliché in to this article, it can even be described as a distinct case of “throwing the baby out with the bathwater”. This becomes even more pertinent when you consider that these rights for converting offices to dwellings without planning permission were temporary until as recently as October 2015.
Surely instead of removing all permitted development rights it would make sense to instead limit the ability for people to convert offices to dwellings without planning permission… which is the point at which I turn to discussing something called an Article 4 Direction.
This measure can be issued by the local planning authority to remove all or part of the permitted development rights for a structure or area. It is generally used in conservation areas where the “character” of an area would be affected by certain types of developments, but it is not purely a conservation designation. Rather it is a part of the Town and Country Planning Act and if it can be used for things such as limiting the number of days in the year when you can hold a car boot sale, surely it can be used by local government if they feel that there is a particular problem with office conversions in their area.
Or we could simply remove or limit the permitted development rights for office conversions.
We as a society seem to have a peculiar aversion to admitting when something isn’t working and that we need to reconsider the situation. Or maybe it’s just an aversion to admitting that we were wrong. It might just be that I’ve been conditioned by several years working in and around science fields, but I am firmly of the opinion there is nothing wrong with admitting that you have changed your mind based upon fresh evidence.
The comments from the LGA about the situation with office conversions, however, takes on a certain farcical air when you consider that just two articles below this one in the Planning Portal newsletter, there is an article about how Westminster City Council has been using Article 4 Directions to limit the conversion of office spaces into dwellings.